It’s taken quite a while for me to learn that the sweetest, most valuable things in life are not quickly attained nor ascertained but come from labor. A labor that is manifested by the sweat of one’s brow and that labor may not be physical. Things like compassion, self-care, boundaries, true respect, love and empathy. Most of these things were not modeled accurately for me in my formative years, so as a result they are not “natural” for me to express, exhibit or understand. Consequently I became emotionally dependent and emotionally illiterate. It’s not that my childhood was all bad, however much of what stands out in my memories was just that… all bad.  My experiences as a youth were probably not that unique in this world of such seeming brokenness, however they sent me on a path that left me broken in so many ways that an ugly aftermath was inevitable. Yet, I have survived and the journey continues and has become easier to travel.

The prison that today I reside in, I’ve learned has an alternative term or title in it’s “American inception” via the Quakers which was “Penitentiary” i.e. a place of penitence, (interesting than we don’t hear that term much anymore) where a person having been found to have violated the law, the sentence would be given as well as a Bible and a candle. The violator was then placed in a cell as it were. The thought was that one could and honest self-reflection and examination through the lens of a “Greater Law”, post removal from the community loved ones and all else held dear, and that recognition of the harms caused, the role played in those harms, the gravity of the Sorrow by the harms of those “things”, and a sincere desire of restoration could after, true penitence had been achieved, they could be restored, not just to the community and loved ones but also to self. It’s a template for what our current system of justice could be. Yet today’s system is a fractured remnant of the past. I say this because I often wonder who was able to judge or determine such a state of penitence. How can it be Quantified to the degree that allows all concern to feel wholly safe? and made whole again? And if the template is the true model, and followed, why are places of penitence so full, with such “Old People”? I digress.

It’s amazing to me that from those early established penal institutions,that somehow the spirit of penitence has sustained itself or rather maintained, and remained. In spite of such a pervasive western philosophy of revenge, not rehabilitation that has been heralded by so many of the patriarchal powers that be. Maintained not from the traditionally religious, but from the Earth’s caretakers, and those from behind the walls. I speak of San Quentin in particular since it has been my Monastery of sorts, where so many self awareness programs have been brought into us by those who yet care and have labored in these seemingly unfruitful Gardens of hopeful penitence. With seeds meant to grow the true awareness Of the authentic self, how to forgive oneself while taking accountability, mindfulness, what it means to be a healthy Community, selflessness, love, compassion, and empathy.

I liken this labor as a long forgotten plot of land in a city that’s been fenced off. No access. It’s an eyesore in the center of the booming metropolis. Someone stumbles upon this plot of land that is dry and rocky. There are weeds everywhere and trash has been thrown over the fence. Cats, dogs, even rats are disappointed in their search for sustenance in this barren place. Yet for some there is no ugliness, just potential. Potential for new life. The process from desire to see life in that barren place is a mess. The breaking up of the soil, the pulling up of weeds, removal of rocks and trash. The chasing off of the rats. And not the least of the challenges being the enlisting of the help of other like-minded folks to Aid one in this hopeful Endeavor to bring forth life anew. Tilling, watering, fertilizing and of course letting the soil rest… and you as well. All in preparation of the sowing season, and hopeful expectation of the coming harvest. I am that soil.

Empathy was a hard concept for me to receive initially, since I had become such a selfish shallow type of man. I mean it was / is all about me right? Self-protection? Right. It is about me, yet no longer from a selfish place. But from a place of gratitude that someone(s) saw in me  that which I could not see in myself. and unlike my history of being left for dead… Metaphorically, these ones stayed and stood with me. My connections are no longer parasitic, but hopefully mutually giving and therapeutic.

I recognize that validations and affirmation of my value and worth have to be recognized from within. All alone I am enough.

And from there I can sow these seeds into my community,  to Aid in the nourishment of the garden like Souls of others and I have no responsibility to make them Sprout, grow or Blossom. Deep care for the humanity and worth of others had dried up and become unfertile  on the Garden journey of my life. Thank God for my gardeners.

I don’t think that empathy needs to be taught, but awakened in each of us. I believe that in large part, we from childhood are caring, loving and yes empathetic. It’s easy as a child.  However, when are naturally empathetic nature is met with ridicule, rejection, judgment, even rebuffing, the vulnerability that allows empathy to be an interface true connection becomes almost impenetrable. therefore we learn to be extremely measured in our expression of empathy, if we continue to express it at all. And it’s not an act of not caring, but an active self protection from the effects of it having been rejected, a  warped sense of self-care because of the trauma, i.e. when people don’t care that you are, and take advantage of the fact that you care…Why care?

or even show that you care. Over time our sensitivities to other’s pain  dolls in us and sometimes even dies. This highlights that if you don’t use it you lose it Theory. And in today’s climate of selfies, socially non-social media  and individual tribalism, we are a species becoming the antithesis of our true selves. Which is strange when the core desire of our hearts is connection. (one of the strongest mantras that came out of the horror of this pandemic is that we’re in this together. We have always been and  we always will be.)  Again I digress.

Memories of the rejection I had experienced on my journey, I internalized, and I told myself a story about myself and my worth in light of the experience. And the false narrative kept me from feeling safe enough to continue to be empathetic. To quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Every person is  a Soul Garden, therefore, sow the seed, embrace the process and await the harvest. From a garden perhaps unfamiliar, yet so very sustaining beautiful. I did. 

Receive more inspiring stories and news from incarcerated people around the world.